The Conservative migration plan: does it work for anyone?

Dora-Olivia Vicol

Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, addresses the Conservative Party Conference, 2016

In the jam-packed Birmingham Symphony Hall that hosted the Conservative Party conference this October, the recently appointed Home Secretary Amber Rudd delivered her plans to create a “Britain that works for everyone”. An all Conservative government, the Home Secretary noted to enthusiastic ovations, was committed to tackling the injustices of poverty, the inequalities of race, and the lingering class divisions, creating a society where “the things that matter are the talent you have and the hard work you are prepared to do”.

It wasn’t long, however, before Amber Rudd revealed that the Conservative road to justice did not start with policies addressing lack of available housing, employment protection, or training, but with a crackdown on migration. Landlords renting to people who are unlawfully residing in the UK, she announced, will be committing a criminal offence from December. Immigration checks will be a mandatory requirement for those wanting to drive a taxi. Banks will have to perform additional checks on their foreign clients. Stricter requirements will also regulate the institutions wishing to sponsor student visas, and deporting EU nationals charged with “so-called minor crime” will be made easier.

To migration scholars, these are but the most recent expressions of a long running attempt to consolidate state borders by extending responsibilities for immigration controls from the most established sites of passport desks, onto individual citizens who are now explicitly called upon to catalogue, monitor, and report on those they encounter [1]. What is new in Amber Rudd’s intervention, however, is that her proposals break with the traditional Conservative pro-business approach, by explicitly condemning firms who fail to rally behind this nationwide exercise of policing migration.

Seizing the opportunity to take over the political ground vacated by a weakened Labour Party and a leaderless UK Independence Party, the Home Secretary took a radical stance against business. Employers who, currently, have to advertise positions to British workers for 28 days before they can recruit third country nationals, a measure Rudd called a “tick box exercise”, in the future will be subjected to harsher tests. Most controversially, it was suggested that firms may even be required to publish lists of the foreign workers they employ – a sinister move one radio presenter compared to 1930s Germany [2]. The radical step, the Home Secretary argued, would provide the right “incentives” for businesses to invest in British workers, and prevent them from “getting away with not training local people”.

It did not take long for the Chamber of British Industry to firmly condemn the proposals for penalising companies, and for turning a global workforce into a “badge of shame” [3]. The Naming and Shaming suggested by Rudd, it was made clear, would not work for business. The question that remains, then, is not whether the Home Secretary’s proposals will work for everyone, as stated with conviction throughout her speech, but whether they will work anyone, at all.

If the plans envisaged by the Home Secretary do go ahead, undocumented migrants will be the most obvious victims. Despite the black and white language of the speech, which claims to be tough on “illegal” migrants without completely pulling up the drawbridge on “legal” ones, illegality is not merely the status of those who cross borders without permission. Illegality is also the status that creeps up on long term migrant-residents who have built lives in the UK, but who fail to acquire the post-study visa extensions, asylum permission, or indeed proof of work required to extend the legality of their stay [4]. As scholars have demonstrated endlessly [5], for as long as work conditions remain unattractive to the native population, migrants will continue to fill industrialised countries’ unwanted jobs, with or without residence documents. The Home Secretary’s proposals to impose additional barriers on lawful employment and banking will do little more than encourage black market work and cash-in-hand transactions, which expose migrants to exploitation, and deprive the state of tax-paying citizens.

But the plans outlined at the Conservative Party conference are also bound to affect documented foreign nationals. If the government implements its pledge to bring migration down to the tens of thousands, despite the lack of evidence of the unsustainability of current levels, this can only mean a hard Brexit: exiting the European Economic Area, and supplying those employers who will struggle to recruit an all British workforce, with migrants holding work permits. Far from giving British jobs back to British workers, this form of bounded labour which makes migrants’ “legality” contingent upon the employer, effectively sanctions precarity, and places a cap on migrants’ social mobility.

Furthermore, while ever since the 2010 elections politicians have limited their welcome to migrants who were net contributors to public coffers, the crude economics [6] of ‘every foreign worker takes a Briton’s job’ the Home Secretary seems to adopt, implicitly rejects the legitimacy of all migrants’ presence in the UK. Such blanket bans, albeit strategically race-mute, risk lending legitimacy to the abhorrent racism that has swept Britain since the EU referendum in June 2016. This is all the more worrying given the Home Secretary’s omission to mention anything about the huge spike in hate crime reported over the summer.

Finally, migration policies do not just reveal the type of migrants the government intends to tolerate, but also the type of citizens it wishes to grow [7]. The new tests required to hire foreign nationals, the Home Secretary stated, “should insure that the people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs that British people could do”. The explicit reference to Britons’ ability to do the dirty work is but a spin on a long-running Conservative assumption that a deserving citizenry has a duty to work, however precarious the jobs. The Home Secretary’s speech, let us not forget, emerged after years of austerity and market deregulation, which saw more benefits subjected to assessments and conditioned upon unpaid work, a rise in self-employment and zero-hours contracts, longer hours, lower disposable incomes, and cuts to legal aid. If the Conservative government does indeed place limits on migration to the tens of thousands, then magically garners the resources UKBA operations would require to eradicate the existing and ensuing black labour market, unless new policies improve the conditions in low-skill-low-pay jobs undertaken by migrants, it is Britons who will be doing the dirty work.

The Home Secretary’s speech rested on the premise of creating “a country that works for everyone”, and helping “those at the very bottom”. After examining the migration policies suggested, it is hard to picture how the proposed extension of state borders into civil society will do anything to help anyone: migrants, citizens, or indeed the businesses traditionally protected by the Conservative party. If the support of working class voters unconvinced by the British Left seems easy to rally around populist migration policies, the Government would be wise to reconsider how sustainable their support will be 3 years down the line, once immigration will cease to draw the public’s interest, and the income inequalities, housing crisis and cash-strapped public services wrongly attributed to migrants will persist.


[1] Anderson, B. (2015) “Immigration and The Worker Citizen” In: Anderson, B., & Hughes, V. (Eds.). (2015). Citizenship and Its Others. Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Cockburn, H. (2016) The Amber Rudd speech being compared to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The Independent. Oct 05 2016

[3] The Guardian (2015) Amber Rudd faces backlash from businesses over foreign workers The Guardian‎. Oct 05 2016

[4] Gonzales, R. G., & Chavez, L. R. (2012). Awakening to a Nightmare. Current Anthropology, 53(3), 255-281.

[5] Nicholas, P., & Genova, D. (2002). Migrant” illegality” and deportability in everyday life. Annual review of anthropology, 419-447.

[6] Wadsworth, J., (2016) Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK. Centre for Economic Performance. LSE pp 34-53

[7] Anderson, B. (2013). Us and them?: The dangerous politics of immigration control. OUP Oxford.


CitizenshipDetention and DeportationEuropean UnionIllegalityLabour MarketsPoliciesPolitics